16 September 2010

Near and Far

Blended panorama of the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, NSW, Australia - August 2010
Not too long ago, I returned from a personal holiday in Australia. It was a fantastic trip, full of people who spoke differently and said funny things, mountain ranges of ancient, crumbling red rocks, and the lingering cold smell of mid-winter. What made it so fantastic was the break from almost everything I knew as normal--everything I could rely on. I went by myself. Money was a pocketful of coins and technicolor stack of bills; cars moved on the wrong side of the street; I often shared a bed-room with 7 other people; the stars were different after dark. Even the water spiraled down the drain the wrong way.

When I returned, I had a conversation with my Dad.

"I think that the farther from home you travel, the more of a relaxing, mind-shifting vacation it can be," I said. He replied, "I think that a person can get the same level of vacationing out of a trip that's not so far away. You don't have to go far to travel far." It went unresolved as to what was "true" because neither of us could fully elucidate our point, but we do agree there are various merits--monetary, temporal, etc.--to both.

A couple days ago, a friend of mine brought up an interesting point related to the debate. He spoke of classical conditioning, which is what might explain, for instance, why you suddenly have to pee really bad right when you get to the bathroom even though you held it so well for the 30 minute car ride home. It's psychological: the toilet evokes your urge to go because that's where you go. Your body gets ready to do the thing before you do.

Such classical conditioning also speaks to my point, which is the difference in traveling near and far away. Here's my question: What if you don't know what the next thing is? That is, what if you're in Australia and it's winter time and the stars are different and you truly have no idea what will happen next? Well, your body doesn't get ready for anything (and you probably don't have to pee really bad). Perhaps you take everything in like a child, hiking in the Blue Mountains, seeing a kangaroo bounding past you for the first time. That's actually no so far off the mark, and wow, it's refreshing.

My claim is this. The farther away you travel, the farther you remove yourself from a familiar context. Without a familiar context, you can't anticipate anything. Showering takes longer because you have to figure out how the faucet works. Eating takes longer because you have to FIND the grocery store. Commuting is confusing because people drive on the wrong side of the street, so you take buses and trains and taxis to god knows where. My good friend Casey also points out that free time pops up when you don't have a familiar context; there is no default plan; there is no ritual to fall into. You're not classically conditioned for any of it. To me, that's a vacation.

But it could just be me trying to prove something to myself in my capacity to push the limits. Maybe my Dad is content and doesn't need a big trip to get big results. Then again, maybe he's speaking from his experience reading Thoreau's Walden, a much-lauded book of personal discovery and actualization and intention. It's set at Walden Pond, which is a real place, but "Walden" is an idealized place too--such as is Eden--that you can find or visit anywhere if you know how to look. Thoreau didn't have to travel a large distance to travel far at Walden Pond. Mary Oliver, a poet, sheds some light on the place as well, especially so because she declined to visit:

Going to Walden
It isn’t very far as highways lie.

I might be back by night fall, having seen

The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.

Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.

They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:

How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!

Many have gone, and think me half a fool

To miss a day away in the cool country.

Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,

Going to Walden is not so easy a thing

As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult

Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

(The River Styx, Ohio and Other Poems, 1972)

Maybe the trick is suspending your classical conditioning in familiar situations. Any ideas how to do that? Perhaps, too, it's actually nice to rely on some comfortable things while you're on vacation. At any rate, it's good to see something new, however far you have to go to see it. As I see it, this is the trick to knowing how to look: Happiness is not a situation, but rather what you make of your circumstances, however far you've traveled. Then you find Walden.